Spotlight: Leadership Changes Underway at Many Leading Universities

July 14, 2023 – Faith Montgomery brings over 25 years of deep experience, passion, and expertise in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors to Lindauer. She serves as vice president and managing director at the firm and has completed major executive level searches for institutions such as Howard University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Harvard University, University of Minnesota Foundation, Babson College, University of Texas Austin, St. Paul’s School, Lawrenceville, among many others. Ms. Montgomery recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss some trends she is seeing within the higher education sector and what type of leaders schools are looking for.

Faith, recent reports say that a large number of university presidents have been stepping down in recent months. Have you seen this as well?
Yes, we’re seeing more leadership transitions at the presidential level of colleges and universities. This is consistent with the American Council on Education’s most recent American College President Report. The report found that more than half of presidents plan to step down from their current roles within the next five years – and yet fewer than 30 percent of institutions have a succession plan in place to guide them through a presidential search. I advise institutions to be as proactive as possible, not only to lay the groundwork for a successful presidential search but to anticipate building a leadership team that can support the new president and execute their vision. Transitions are an opportunity to take a 360-degree view and find alignment across strategic priorities, roles, and responsibilities.

Is this opening doors for diverse candidates?
More candidates from diverse lived experiences are pursuing and being hired for presidential positions at a range of institutions in higher education. The higher turnover rates at the very top of colleges and universities are creating an opportunity for these institutions to think deeply about how they might find, attract, and retain qualified women and people of color for leadership positions. Building a diverse pool of candidates requires intentionality. It won’t happen organically. When institutions turn to their traditional talent pipelines, they’re more likely to appoint a leader who matches the profile of the people who have held the position in the past. Look at the career paths of today’s presidents: a majority rise from faculty and academic positions, which has the effect of limiting opportunities for diverse candidates. What might happen if more institutions opened their presidential searches to candidates who followed different career paths? I also have to point out that recruiting diverse candidates for leadership positions is one thing; creating the conditions for them to succeed in their new role is another. This means dismantling systemic obstacles to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) at the board and executive levels. People of color are doing their due diligence to determine if an institution is ready to support their vision. They’re asking boards and search committees tough questions related to an institution’s commitment to DEIB. For example, they want to know about recruiting efforts for diversifying faculty and the student body, retention strategies for students of color, financial aid, and the general allocation of funds to create a climate of belonging for people of all backgrounds.

What are some traits schools are looking for in incoming leaders?
Schools are looking for leaders who can lead and manage complex institutions with both head and heart, who bring proven experience and emotional intelligence to working with people and advancing the goals of their institutions. The leaders who embody this type of leadership encourage risk-taking, creating a climate in which people have room to experiment and innovate. By focusing on rewarding success rather than punishing failure, these leaders motivate their teams while connecting them to a larger sense of purpose. There’s also an emphasis on leaders who have an understanding and compassion for their staff as people. The most successful leaders today are sensitive to what is happening in the world and the resulting impact on colleagues individually and collectively at work. In recent years, we’ve seen a groundswell of such ugliness — in the form of police killings and mass shootings, for instance — that has shaken most of us to our core. Many employees struggle to leave that at the door when they go into the office or participate in a Zoom meeting. Modern leaders pause and are willing to address these moments head on. They understand that different people experience these events differently, and they take an equitable approach to ensuring each person has what they need to be supported. Recruiting for these traits is important. They may not necessarily come through in a resume or cover letter. Interviews are an opportunity to ask for concrete examples of how candidates have exhibited these qualities in the past. For example, “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national racial reckoning that followed, how did you support your team? How have you used a lens of equity to engage marginalized groups and bring them forward? What history have you brought into conversations regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?”

What are some current trends that you are seeing for recruiting senior leaders for colleges and universities?
The higher turnover rates are creating opportunities for candidates of diverse lived experiences. However, it is not enough to build diverse pools of candidates and commit to finding qualified women and people of color for leadership positions. Institutions must also create the conditions for them to succeed. Women and people of color profoundly understand this, and they are evaluating institutions to gauge their commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

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